tender | complex | punchy | thought-provoking | intelligent
what it says on the cover …
Ida is a forty-year-old architect, single and struggling with a feeling of panic as she realises her chances of motherhood are rapidly falling away from her. She’s navigating Tinder and contemplating freezing her eggs – but tries to put a pause on these worries as she heads out to the seaside family cabin for her mother’s 65th birthday. That is, until some supposedly wonderful news from her sister sets old tensions simmering, building to an almighty clash between Ida and her sister, her mother, and her entire family.
Exhilarating, funny, and unexpectedly devastating, Grown Ups gets up close and personal with a dysfunctional modern family.
PUBLISHED: 3rd June 2021
SHELF: Contemporary Fiction
AUTHOR: Marie Aubert
TRANSLATOR: Rosie Hedger
PUBLISHER: Pushkin Press
FORMATS: Paperback | Kindle
my review …
Over the last year, or so, I’ve been really lucky to read a number of Scandinavian fiction novels translated to English, and each time I’ve felt drawn to the quiet and frank simplicity of their prose. So when I was kindly offered a proof copy of Grown Ups (superbly translated from Norwegian to English by Rosie Hedger), I seized the opportunity with glee.
At just over 150 pages, Grown Ups is a deceptively short novel; there’s not a spare word or sentence, and yet it’s distilled the tension, intrigue and emotional sensitivities of a novel twice its length into the pages. This intensely intimate story holds a small family up to the light, rendering the nuances of conversations, glances, sentiments, and memories transparent and candidly exposed for the reader’s interpretation.
In a book club environment, I feel confident there would be no identical reaction to Grown Ups. Each of the book’s characters have been artfully written to divide opinion, almost forcing the reader to take a side. But it’s more than that, because the character development is such that my own relationship with each of them evolved and shifted as the story progressed. This thought-provoking book relies on the empathy and appraisal of its readers, and for that reason each reader will take away a very different interpretation of the story and its characters.
The author places forty year-old Ida at the centre of her novel; the opening chapters belong to her entirely as we learn about her contemplation of motherhood, her disastrous dating history, and her arms-length relationship with her family. There’s a deep-seated, festering rivalry between Ida and her younger sister, Marthe; it stems right back to their childhood and has the potential to spill over with catastrophic consequences.
The simmering tension between the two sisters has been written with incredible impact. The loaded comments. The snide cruelties. The sly glances. The one-upmanship. They all bring a magnetic, almost thriller-like tension to the story. The antipathy seems to be borne of the powerful desire to be their mother’s favourite; and although their mother is aware of and frustrated by it, I was infuriated by her seemingly stoking the fire and reinforcing Ida’s insecurities.
A pressure-cooker context has been created in the form of a big birthday celebration at the family’s coastal cabin. It’s Ida and Marthe’s mother’s 65th birthday, prompting a family gathering where the three women are joined by Marthe’s partner, Kristoffer, his gorgeous daughter (previous relationship) Olea, and Stein, their mother’s partner of six years. And then the heat’s turned up considerably when Marthe announces her much longed-for pregnancy. With the wine flowing, and in the wake of some truly heart-breaking news, an emotionally fraught Ida lashes-out against her sister, with Kristoffer and Olea at risk of becoming collateral damage in the sister’s spiralling relationship.
The way the characters behave that evening is where I found my opinions of them being most deeply challenged. Ida – whom I’d felt an immediate connection with from the very start of the book – makes some shockingly dangerous decisions. At times I could have happily stepped into the book, shaken her … but then wrapped her in the hug she’s so desperately crying out for. Meanwhile, Marthe, who’s niggled at me as much as she tormented Ida, won my sympathy in the aftermath of some dreadful revelations. And although I said I was frustrated by their mother’s laissez-faire stance, I’d occasionally find myself understanding her reasoning at letting the sisters work through it themselves … after all, they are both grown ups. Stein, meanwhile, was a bit of a spare wheel throughout the calamitous weekend, although there were times I was amazed Ida didn’t react to him as furiously as I did!
Grown Ups depicts a modern, blended family without the whimsical airbrushing of many novels in the contemporary fiction genre. It’s an astutely well-observed story that explores many facets of familial bonds: both motherhood and fatherhood, step-parenting, childhood bereavement, pregnancy, and what is means to be the black sheep.
It packs quite a punch into its tightly-plotted pages, presenting a non-judgmental narrative that leaves the reader to ponder the rights and wrongs of what they’re reading. Grown Ups is a book that lends itself so well to book groups, but be prepared for some spirited disagreements. Does Ida’s news from Sweden in any way mitigate her actions? Do the events of that night irretrievably damage your reader-relationship with her? Was her decision to break a confidence influenced sibling solidarity, or was it skewed by a desire to hurt?
Whilst there’s no neat and tidy closure to the family’s story, I ended the book with a feeling of hope for both the sisters. Ida in particular. She’s a complex, intelligent, and deep-feeling woman but whilst she’s successful and likeable, her palpable loneliness could all too easily be her undoing. One by one her family leave her alone at the cabin, and I’d like to think she’s able to use the tranquility and space to come to terms with her life, how it’s changed, how it’s still going to change, and discover a positive sense of her own worth.
I think I was just over the halfway through the book when I was struck by the impression that this is (in some ways) a coming-of-age story. Bear with me – I’m not going mad! Whilst most books described as ‘coming-of-age’ focus on characters entering young adulthood, I felt this phrase also bears an overwhelming harmony with the bombardment of life changes faced by a woman entering her forties … a second coming-of-age if you like. It touches upon the societal pressures to follow a certain path, the inexorable flood of hormonal changes, the grasp for childhood memories as a source of stability. I’m not a fan of the ‘women’s fiction’ label, but this is a book that will speak most loudly to so many of us. I hugely recommend it.
Thank you to Tara McEvoy at Pushkin Press for sending me an uncorrected ARC of Grown Ups. I hope you’ve enjoyed my honest review of this book.
If this book sounds like one you’d love to read too, here’s a selection of purchase links:
• To buy direct from the author/publisher, click ☞ here
• To support independent local bookshops, click ☞ here
• To feed your Waterstones ‘plus’ loyalty card, click ☞ here
• And of course, here is the ubiquitous Amazon link
Marie Aubert was born in 1979 and lives in Oslo. She made her debut with the short story collection Can I Come Home with You (2016), which was a huge success in Norway, selling more than 10,000 copies. Her acclaimed first novel Grown-ups (2019) won the Young People’s Critics’ Prize (Norway’s equivalent to the Goncourt des lyceens) and was nominated for the Booksellers’ Prize. Rights have already been sold in ten other countries.
#GrownUps | @marieau | @rosie_hedger | @PushkinPress
#contemporaryfiction | #fiction | #familyfiction | #scandinavian | #Norway
#bookblog | #books | #bibliophile | #bookworm | #bookaddict | #bookshelf
#goodreads | #reads | #bookaholic | #reader